Restoring the free movement of people in Europe and opening internal borders is crucial to rescue the 2020 summer season. Tens of millions of jobs and family livelihoods are at stake as the coronavirus threatens to fatally damage the tourism sector.
While economic activity all over Europe is slowly starting back up, the most draconian measures, the closure of national borders, are still in effect. These measures were deemed necessary at the start of the epidemic in Europe to pull the emergency brakes and stop cross-border contagion. They are now disproportionate in light of the national internal measures in place. Countries have managed to get the epidemic under control; new cases can be recognized and isolated much quicker than at the start of the crisis. This is why the Schengen area should be restored as a matter of urgency.
Instead, we are now hearing talk of bilateral agreements between countries inside the European Union to organize travel between themselves this summer. This would be a huge mistake. It would create first- and second-class citizens, those who are allowed to travel and those who are not. It would constitute an unacceptable breach of the fundamental right to freedom of movement in the EU. If a country opens up tourism to its own nationals, it should be open to all countries of the EU.
Economies in Europe are about to face one of the biggest economic shocks in living memory. We need to do everything we can to safeguard people’s jobs and incomes wherever we can. This is particularly urgent for the travel and tourism sector, which is good for about 10% of Europe’s GDP and employs almost 23 million people, many of whom are in family-owned and small businesses in countries or regions that depend heavily on foreign visitors. The European Union must do what it can to protect them by urgently presenting a comprehensive continental exit strategy for the tourism sector, and salvage what is left of the holiday season.
The coronavirus presents all of us with the same challenges, so Europe should respond with one voice. Among others, such a strategy should include common protocols for air, sea and train travel, and Europe-wide rules for travel by car. We will need one common health and sanitary standard for hotels, restaurants and museums and their personnel to make sure the local tourism infrastructure is Covid-proof. Also, if you want to travel abroad, you should have health insurance. The key question facing us now is how well we can discipline and regulate our movements to allow for the maximum amount of freedom, at the lowest possible risk of spreading the virus.
At the same time, it is clear that travel inside and to Europe this summer will be far below what many hotels and restaurants had hoped for. Even if we successfully and responsibly manage to start up the tourism industry inside Europe again, many businesses will face difficulties and even bankruptcy. We therefore call for small and medium-sized businesses in the tourism sector to be eligible for liquidity support from the EU budget. Countries that depend more on tourism than others should get more support. That is how solidarity works in Europe.
The actions of the European Union in the next days and weeks will be decisive for the livelihoods of millions of people. We believe that the European Commission should act urgently and decisively to restore our fundamental freedoms and show our solidarity to the millions of people working and depending on tourism for their income and well-being.
Manfred Weber is chairman of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament.